A Joyful Noise

Grammy-nominated Dashon Burton, assistant professor of voice, lets his love for music soar

Blair voice professor Dashon Burton singing at the piano
Dashon Burton, assistant professor of voice (Vanderbilt University/John Russell)

Update: Congratulations to Vanderbilt Blair School of Music Grammy winners Dashon Burton, assistant professor of voice and member of choral ensemble Roomful of Teeth, Edgar Meyer, adjunct associate professor of bass, and Jessie Montgomery, former Blair artist in residence, who won in the following categories:

  • Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance: “Rough Magic,” Roomful of Teeth

  • Best Global Music Performance: “Pashto,” Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain, featuring Rakesh Chaurasia

  • Best Contemporary Instrumental Album: “As We Speak,” Béla Fleck, Zakir Hussain, Edgar Meyer, featuring Rakesh Chaurasia

  • Best Contemporary Classical Composition: “Montgomery: Rounds,” Jessie Montgomery, composer (Awadagin Pratt, A Far Cry and Roomful of Teeth)
View the video to hear from Dashon Burton

By Bonnie Arant Ertelt

Some have said that singer Dashon Burton’s bass-baritone is enormous, capable of raising the dead or like looking directly into the sun. As soon as his voice changed when he was growing up, it grabbed attention. And this year, it has the attention of the Recording Academy once more, as the two-time Grammy winner is again nominated with vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth in the Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance category for their album Rough Magic (New Amsterdam Records, 2023).

Rough Magic (New Amsterdam Records, 2023)

Burton, assistant professor of voice at Vanderbilt University Blair School of Music, won in the same category in 2014 with Roomful of Teeth’s debut recording which featured Teeth member Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Rough Magic also includes a composition by Blair alumnus and fellow New Amsterdam artist William Brittelle, BMus’99. His piece “Brittelle: Psychedelics” is nominated for a Grammy in the Best Contemporary Classical Composition category.*

Burton describes Roomful of Teeth as his family, a band of voices that “want to explore the world and take on any vocal challenge” that possibly can be imagined.

“Brad Wells, our founder and artistic director, says that we are devoted to finding the old growth forest in the voice,” Burton said, “ways of singing and ways of expressing humanity that are able to be absorbed in a very powerful way. We have this tiny, almond-sized box of joy that lives inside our throats, and mining the expressive potential of this instrument is what makes that whole concept a powerful one. People have been making music in many different ways across time. We want to join in that conversation and use our voices to amplify art, amplify the human spirit in as many exciting ways as possible.”


“Love and Happiness”

Burton first knew that music might be a possible avenue when his middle school choral director pulled him out of the hallway and asked him to audition after hearing him with his friends. “I didn’t know anything about singing or music, but he was kind enough to take me on as a student,” he said. “That’s when I really started to love music as a performer.”

He wanted to be a physicist or mathematician at that time, but as he progressed with music, he began to find his passion with the full support of his family. Listening to R&B singer Al Green was a family affair.

“We all loved Al Green in my family,” Burton said. “My friends all know this about me, that Al Green basically raised me. It was an amazing stroke of coincidence that the first musician I truly knew of was a singer. It was a powerful thing to be thinking of doing this when I was so young.”

At Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music in Ohio, Burton began a program in music education but began to believe that having a career as a singer could be a full-time job. “My first job out of college was in a men’s ensemble, Cantus, based in Minneapolis,” Burton said. “From there, I absolutely knew that I had to sing for my entire life.”


Dashon Burton sitting at the piano in Blair's Steve and Judy Turner Recital Hall
Dashon Burton, assistant professor of voice, is nominated for his third Grammy award, his second with the choral ensemble Roomful of Teeth. (Vanderbilt University/John Russell)

Teaching and discovery

For more than a decade, Burton has sung all over the world, in ensemble with Cantus, Conspirare and Roomful of Teeth and as a solo artist. In 2021 he joined the voice faculty at Blair.

“What brought me to Vanderbilt was meeting colleagues that I had met out on the road and knowing the standard of excellence here. But when I was actually able to visit,” he said, “it was the students. I cannot tell you how deeply moved I am every day by what the students do here. I am truly over the moon to work with them.”

Burton says it is the spirit of discovery in teaching his students at Blair that has led him to recognize that same sense in his own music performances, whether it is singing a contemporary piece or a well-recognized classical chestnut.

“The thing I’ve learned most about transitioning from full-time performing into being a professor is that I have so much to learn about music and performing and the capability of the human spirit,” he said. “I was never one who thought I knew everything, and I’ve been really lucky to have a lot of amazing experiences, but coming to Vanderbilt has taught me that it’s so much more than the performance or the piece of music. It’s about the relationship that you build with the audience, the relationship you build with a piece of music from the first time you open the score. Teaching that to students has been a fascinating and enlivening part of my job.”

Blair’s embrace of its position within a major research institution and its support of students with second majors also impresses Burton. He feels that it adds to their musical awareness. “Students here are passionate and committed to a lot of different fields,” he explained. “They are also passionate about music that is being created today. If we bring that approach into music that’s already been written and find ways to make it as alive as possible, that’s how we make music soar.”

Making music soar will never be a problem for Dashon Burton.

“I love it, I just love music. I love singing, and it’s such a huge part of my life, so I can’t help but let it explode out of my heart. It’s a fantastic way to be a human, and it’s the only way that I know how.”

*Vanderbilt Blair School faculty are no strangers to the Grammy Awards. Among current faculty, there have been more than 20 Grammy Awards won and more than 40 nominations. Also nominated this year for three Grammys is Edgar Meyer, adjunct associate professor of bass and a five-time Grammy winner, who received three new nominations:

  • Best Contemporary Instrumental Album: As We Speak – Bela Fleck, Zakir Hussain, Edgar Meyer, featuring Rakesh Chaurasia
  • Best Global Music Performance: “Pashto” – Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain, featuring Rakesh Chaurasia
  • Best Instrumental Composition: “Motion” – Edgar Meyer, composer (Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Zakir Houssain, featuring Rakesh Chaurasia)

The 66th Grammy Awards will be Sunday, Feb. 4, at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles.